Valley of Giants - Stories from Women at the Heart of Yosemite Climbing

Many people know that Royal Robbins and Warren Harding pioneered rock climbing on Yosemite’s big walls like Half Dome in the 1950s. Not enough know about the role women like Bea Vogel played in the sport’s evolution. 

“Warren was complaining about Royal Robbins finishing the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome without him. He was pouting and moaning because he had been left out,” Vogel recalled. “I told him, ‘Oh hell! There are lots of other walls. Why don’t you do El Capitan?’”

At Vogel’s suggestion, Harding and his partners labored to scale The Nose of El Capitan over 47 days in 1958. The breakthrough ascent changed climbing forever, though Vogel noted that Harding never credited her for inspiration. 

That’s one of many revelations contained in the new book “Valley of Giants: Stories from Women at the Heart of Yosemite Climbing,” edited by Lauren Delaunay Miller. A climber herself who has served on Yosemite’s Search and Rescue Team, Miller assembled 38 fascinating women’s narratives from 1930 through the present. Her work will expand the horizons of even those who consider themselves well-versed in Yosemite climbing history. 

For example, women like Marjorie Bridge Farquhar and Virginia Greever climbed the Cathedral Spires in the early 1930s. Vogel led classic routes like Royal Arches and forged her own pitons by the early 1950s. Liz Robbins, teaming up with her future husband Royal Robbins in 1960, made the first ascent of Nutcracker, using clean protection instead of pitons which scar and damage rock. 

Sibylle Hetchel and Bev Johnson achieved El Cap’s first female ascent in 1973. “Being up there with another woman can be incredibly comfortable, relaxed, and hilariously funny …  There is always a certain pressure to prove that women can do things,” Hetchel observed.

Lynn Hill would second that. Well-known for the first free ascent of The Nose in 1994, Hill shared instead about her 1980 climb of El Capitan’s Shield with Mari Gingery. The overhanging and intimidating route took six grueling days to ascend. “Well worth the effort,” Hill wrote. “I felt the need to demonstrate that women can do whatever we set our minds to.”

More than just a litany of women’s accomplishments though, “Valley of Giants” expresses the wisdom its contributors achieved. Life lessons they acquired through their journeys and shared in Miller’s book differ starkly from the tone of men’s climbing narratives. 

“Our foremothers have much to teach us, if only we stop and listen,” Miller wrote. 

Yosemite women who played important roles in the park’s early history include (from left) Constance Gordon-Cummings, Bridget Degnan, and Jennie Foster Curry. NPS photos

“Yosemite Women” exhibit 

Yosemite women’s history goes far beyond climbing, of course. “Yosemite Women: A Yosemite Museum Exhibit Honoring the 19th Amendment Centennial,” a new display open to the public at the Ahwahnee Hotel, documents their many contributions.

Julia Parker taught Yosemite visitors about Indigenous traditions for more than 50 years. NPS photo, Yosemite National Park Museum Collections

Indigenous women like Julia Parker kept alive traditional practices such as basket making. As an interpretive park ranger, Parker educated visitors for more than 50 years. “I felt like Yosemite was a big mother to me, protecting me from the outside,” she said.

In the years after President Lincoln first protected Yosemite’s wilderness in 1864, Irish immigrant Bridget Degnan opened a bakery and fed the crowds forming in Yosemite Valley. After Yosemite became a national park in 1890, Jennie Foster Curry established Camp Curry and hosted guests there for decades. Clare Marie Hodges became the first female ranger in the National Park Service in 1918, patrolling the backcountry and performing her duties with “fearless dexterity and efficiency,” the park superintendent recorded. 

Claire Marie Hodges became the first female ranger in the National Park Service in 1918 – NPS photo

Shirley Sargent, a Yosemite historian and author who wrote more than 30 books and 200 articles, captured much of this history in her work, “Pioneers in Petticoats,” published in 1966. “Yosemite has had ‘men to match its mountains.’ At their heels were the pioneers in petticoats whose energies, exploits, and significance in that place of surpassing beauty and prominence received little recognition or public notice. The authoress, a Yosemite devotee since 1936, decided to correct this oversight,” Sargent wrote. 

Cicely Muldoon became Yosemite’s first female superintendent in 2020. NPS photo

“Yosemite Women” shared the stories of many others who changed Yosemite, including climbers, conservationists, and rangers. Cicely Muldoon, the park’s female superintendent, took office in 2020. “I am so grateful for all who helped clear the path for me, and hope I can give a helping hand to the next generation of park leaders… Yosemite superintendent is the best job on the planet!” Muldoon said. 

Climber Quinn Brett, featured in Henna Taylor’s film “An Accidental Life,” manages to smile despite great adversity. Promotional photo- image: courtesy of Matt Johanson

“An Accidental Life” film

Further establishing 2022 as the Year of Yosemite Women, a new film called “An Accidental Life” reveals the emotional story of climber Quinn Brett.

Brett achieved rare success climbing in Yosemite, once ascending seven big walls in seven exhausting days with her partner Josie McKee in 2016. During the following year, she suffered a 120-foot fall on The Nose which broke her back and paralyzed her from the waist down. 

“An Accidental Life” shows her effort to heal and forge a new life. Filmmaker Henna Taylor captures Brett’s lows and highs as she suffers wrenching grief while searching for joy. Throughout the movie, a wheelchair-bound Brett struggles with physical tasks, therapy, pain and despair. “I’m living my nightmare,” she says.

Friends rally to help her adapt and cope. As the film ends near the accident’s second anniversary, Brett enjoys a camping and cycling trip with them. “I’m celebrating new friends and new experiences,” she says. She’s learned to ride a hand cycle and landed a National Park Service job to help expand backcountry access for the disabled. 

“The reason I chose to share my difficult time with you all is to shine a light to this injury, its secondary ailments, the stigma society places on disability and that helping us via funding more research is not an impossible feat,” Quinn wrote. “Continue funding and fueling spinal cord research. Please.”

_________________________________________________________________

Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.


Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant 501c3 nonprofit publication with no paywall, a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, offering unique, differentiated reporting, factual news, and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation, and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.